New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

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Fearlessly Individualistic, Counterintuitive Classical Hits From Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili

By oldschool record label standards, releasing an album of greatest hits from the classical canon guarantees yourself a pretty wide audience. The theory is that most of the crowd who will buy it doesn’t know anything beyond the standard repertoire and can’t differentiate between interpretations. From a critical perspective, this kind of album invites disaster, a minefield of crushing comparisons to every great artist who has recorded those same pieces over the past century. How does pianist Khatia Buniatishvili‘s new album Labyrinth – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the competition? Spoiler alert: this is a very individualistic record. And that’s a very good thing.

Consider the opening number, Deborah’s Theme, from the late, great Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon a Time in America. Buniatishvili plays it with such limpidness, such tenderness, such spaciousness that plenty of listeners could call it extreme.

Then she tackles Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1: so easy to play, but so brutally challenging to figure out rhythmically. Buniatishvili gives it just enough rubato to avoid falling into the trap so many other pianists have, taking the easy way out and turning it into a maudlin waltz. This is haunting, and revelatory, and augurs well for the rest of the record.

Other pianists approach Chopin’s E Minor Prelude with a nervous, scurrying attack. Buniatishvili lets it linger in a ineffable sadness before she chooses her escape route. Again, it’s an unorthodox path to take, but once again she validates her approach. The Ligeti etude Arc-en-ciel, one of the lesser-known works here gets a similar treatment, its belltone sonics exploding just when not expected to.

Not all of the rest of the record is this dark. Her piano-four-hands take of Bach’s Badinerie, from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 with Gvantsa Buniatishvili is a clenched-teeth romp. Yet the Air on the G String gets reinvented as a dirge: the first instinct is to laugh, but then again the choice to play it as Procol Harum actually works. She does the same with Scarlatti later on.

Buniatishvili builds baroque counterpoint in an increasingly crushing take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: probably not what the composer envisioned, although there’s no arguing with the logic of her dynamic contrasts. She follows a deviously ragtimey arrangement of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise with a haphazardly pummeling and then luxuriant version of Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor, which also works in context.

The pairing of French baroque composer Francois Couperin’s circling, delicately ornamented Les Barricades Mystérieuses with a Bach ripoff of a famous Vivaldi theme is an even whiter shade of pale. Fans of 20th century repertoire are rewarded with richly lingering version of Part’s stark Pari Intervallo and a hauntingly enveloping performance of Philip Glass’ I’m Going to Make a Cake (from the film The Hours).

There’s also an opulent interpretation of the well-known Brahms Intermezzo, Liszt’s nocturnal Consolation (Pensée poétique) and another Bach piece, the brooding Adagio from the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. Oh yeah – there’s another famous thing here that clocks in at 4:33. Don’t let that lead you to believe that the album’s over yet. Stodgier classical music fans will hear this and dismiss much of it as punk rock. Let them. Their loss.

Revisiting a Relentlessly Bleak, Minimalist Film Score

The annual monthlong Halloween celebration here may be past the midpoint, but there’s still plenty of dark music left in the pipeline through the end of the month here. Today we celebrate with the immersive score to the 2019 Rashid Johnson film Native Son, by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein (of S U R V I V E), streaming at Spotify.

This is a very atmospheric, minimalist series of electronic soundscapes. A brief series of doppler-like phrases sets the stage. There’s more ominous texture and contrasts – rumbling lows, hypnotically shifting sheets of grey noise – than there is discernible melody. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t drama: those moments of agitation spring up in a split second, only to fade down into the murk.

Much of this evokes echoey industrial drainpipes, waves of heat over asphalt, and cold mechanical drones which build to turmoil. In contrast, there are interludes with simple, slowly rising and falling synthesized strings, and vintage 80s synth patches. Somewhere a Terminator is running low on batteries.

The film itself is based on the iconic Richard Wright novel: if the score is any indication, the cinematic version of the story of Bigger Thomas is even more relentlessly bleak than the book.

Smart, Politically Woke Party Music From Los Mocosos

Old ska bands never die: the party never stops. Look at the Skatalites. They invented ska, and even as they lost some members along the way – starting early, with Don Drummond – they had a fifty-year career. Los Mocosos have a long, long way to go before they get that far, but don’t rule them out. And they play a lot more than just ska. Their latest album, wryly titled All Grown Up, is streaming at Bandcamp.

Throughout the record, the band switch between English and Spanish, typically in the same song. They start out with the party songs and get more political as the album goes along. They open with the title cut, a catchy minor-key mashup of rocksteady, salsa and ska. “‘I’m just here to play my tunes, get your body to move and get all the ladies,” frontman Manny Martinez sings in a resonant croon with a strong resemblance to Steel Pulse’s David Hinds.

Speaking of classic reggae, the second track, United We Stand, immediately brings to mind Bob Marley’s Exodus, right down to Steve Carter’s slinky organ, Happy Sanchez’s tightly clustering bassline and the punchy brass section. It’s a reminder that we’re one big nation of immigrants who need to stick together and fight, or else we’re all in trouble.

Mirala is a psychedelic cumbia party tune with balmy horns and a little reggaeton. Ready for the Weekend shifts back and forth between a turbocharged oldschool disco groove and a ska bounce. Then the band hit a simmering roots reggae pulse and make their way into a Sympathy For the Devil-style sway in Caminos, an anthem for hardworking strugglers everywhere.

They slow things down even further with the twinkling retro rock ballad Memories of Love and then give themselves a shout-out with the salsa-ska theme Viva Los Mocosos. Martinez contemplates how an immigrant fits into a neighborhood and its history with It’s All Good, a brooding mashup of lowrider funk, oldschool soul and hip-hop.

The album’s most defiant track is Libre, a big, soaring rocksteady anthem. They close with Brothers & Sisters, a call for unity. It’s been a brutal year, and it’s been a long time since there’s been any party music on this page. Feels good to know bands like this still exist.

Snarling, Cynical, Dark 80s-Style Rock From All Souls

For an American band, All Souls sound very European: a little glam, a little goth, some punk, a lot of Bowie. Their album Songs for the End of the World is streaming at Bandcamp. All the members have gigs with other groups – most notably with Black Elk – but this really gives everybody in the band a chance to show off their good taste along with their chops. Frontman/guitarist Antonio Aguilar’s cynical, very 80s-inspired songwriting proves to be as sharp as his eclectic guitar playing.

They open with Sentimental Rehash, an acidic, no wave-tinged take on the Stooges, Aguilar raising a middle finger to clueless “media-manipulated minds” over drummer Tony Tornay’s rumble.

Twilight Times has dissolute Bowie grandeur and Stones disguised as skronk, the twin guitars of Aguilar and Erik Trammell anchored by Meg Castellanos’ gritty punk bassline. From there they segue up into Winds, the album’s big, slow, cynical, apocalyptic epic, flaring with quasi-metal guitar leads and a long, grimly hypnotic outro.

Bleeding Out opens with an insistent hook that brings to mind a big 80s anthem by the Church, veers toward New York Dolls territory and then back. Slowly pulsing over echoey, growling, scrapy guitar multitracks, You Just Can’t Win has a coldly crescendoing, distant 80s menace and unexpected tinges of Indian music. Then the band kick into apocalyptic Bowie mode again with Empires Fall

Lights Out has more allusive hints of Bowie and also some late Beatles, caught between enigmatic insistence and stadium rock hooks. Jaggedness and slow, catchy spacerock collide in Bridge the Sun, with a deliciously dark, chromatic outro. The album’s final cut is Coming with Clouds, a grim, Celtic-tinged seaside eco-disaster parable: “A history of violence, knowing that the time was finally at hand,” as Aguilar puts it. This album really grows on you and demands repeated listening. You’re going to see this on a lot of best-of-2020 albums lists at the end of the year if such things still exist by the time we get to December.

A Rising Star Film Composer Salutes a Horror Icon

What could possibly be more Halloweenish than H.P. Lovecraft? Cthulhu’s tentacles slithering above the moonlit surface of the Miskatonic! The Old Ones in the caverns deep beneath the Mountains of Madness at the bottom of the world! Often imitated, never duplicated, the master of all things eldritch has been referenced by a gazillion metal bands and sourced for a movie, The Color Out of Space. The promo looks pretty cheesy, more Arkham House than genuine Arkham, but Colin Stetson‘s soundtrack – streaming at Spotify – is not.

All the requisite elements are in place. Moody, spare minor-key piano, check. Portentously hovering, still strings, check. Distant gurgles, ghostly washes, sudden white-knuckle swells, deep-space echoes, crashing electronic carnage, it’s all there, not necessarily in that order.

The question is where Stetson’s signature bass sax is and the answer is that it’s probably not, other than maybe that digeridoo-like drone after the “alpacalypse.” After getting a start at the crazed fringes of jazz, taking a detour into live techno and then finding a home in new classical and film music, he seems to be comfortable being more of a composer with a darkly ambient streak these days. And that’s fine. His big band arrangement of Henryk Gorecki’s iconic Third Symphony was as hypnotically poignant as anyone could want. Now if we could only go to a real theatre to enjoy all these movies he’s scoring!

Edgy, Oldschool Electric Florida Blues From the Wailin’ Wolves

The Wailin’ Wolves come from blues country: deep down in Florida, as Muddy Waters used to sing. They’ve been a mainstay of East Florida roadhouses for years. There’s been some turnover in the band in the wake of the death of co-founder and guitarist Bert Calderon, but they continue to soldier on, and put on an often electrifying, unpredictable show. They’re playing a free outdoor gig at 3 PM on Oct 25 at Fish Camp, a burger joint at 12062 Waterfront Drive on Lake Lamonia in Tallahassee; there’s no cover.

Some blues bands go into the studio and make rushjob albums (Rounder Records was notorious for doing that throughout the 80s and 90s). Not the Wailin’ Wolves. They’ve got more than an hour of frequently feral live audio at their music page, a mix of classics and originals.

The group’s latest lead guitarist, Lenny Widener is the rare blues player who doesn’t waste notes, although he takes a lot of chances: he’s always thisclose to going over the edge, whether with his wah-wah on or just an icy, gritty tone on his Strat.

Frontwoman Brittany Widener is a brassy belter: imagine Susan Tedeschi but with more sass and simmer. Keyboardist Jim Graham holds the group together throughout the solos, and seems just as home playing honkytonk and blues piano in a swinging pocket with bassist Adam Gaffney and drummer Deb Berlinger.

Hit their music page and give a listen to Bert’s Bolero, a haphazard minor-key blues written by Calderon, which sounds like early Santana covering the Doors. Taxi Man, with a sultry vocal from the group’s frontwoman and some wry wah guitar, is another original, which they follow with the slow boogie Help Me. Some choice covers include a careening take of Hey Bartender, an unexpectedly energetic version of The Thrill Is Gone and a growling, upbeat, Stonesy reinvention of the Howlin’ Wolf classic Built For Comfort. This is how people play the blues in the parts of the world where it’s still party music.

For those who might why a New York music blog would suddenly take an interest in places like Tallahassee, or Sioux Falls, that’s because both of those cities have live music. And thanks to a power-mad dictator in the New York state house, New York City has little more than buskers in city parks and jazz groups phoning in sidewalk cafe gigs. Much respect to the people of Sioux Falls and Tallahassee for keeping the arts alive when they’re all but dead in Manhattan.

A Brand New Protest Song

Why are so few people outside the jazz world writing protest songs these days?

Because we’re so overwhelmed? Because events have become so chaotic that a topical song is almost dated from the time it’s written?

Or because people are too afraid?

Here’s a brand new one this blog heard recently:

New Abnormal Blues

Computer salesman put on his boogieman suit
Said if anybody moves around here just shoot
People stand in line, six feet apart
You’re going back to the plantation for a brand new start

Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Crossroads is calling to you

Like Julian Assange, a rocket from the tombs
I’m hearing other voices from many other rooms
Fake news twenty four seven, three sixty five
Nonstop limousine liberal pledge drive

Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Crossroads is calling to you

Sheeple walking round in their muzzles and veils
Can’t see the express train coming down the rails
Mad doctor gonna get you before you pull the lever
Gonna vaccinate you from any further endeavor

Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Crossroads is calling to you

Every last little Hitler kissing up to the boss
Get a good job working for the Holocaust
Death camp duty, surely pay the bills
From the Javits Center to Forest Hills

Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Crossroads is calling to you

Teachers screaming at kids, they can’t hug their friends
Parents won’t tell ‘em how all this ends
Call the snitch hotline, tell ‘em everything you saw
You know divide and conquer, that’s the law

Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Go down, go down Moses
Crossroads is calling to you

You better catch that tablet flying past your head
Take it to the mountaintop, tell us what it said
Better read that writing bleeding through the wall
Hear that trumpet, that’s your wakeup call

Go down
Crossroads calling to you

Tunewise, this is a fast shuffle blues in G – but you can sing it in any key that works for you. The four lines of the verse follow a G-G-C-G progression. Likewise, the chorus is G-G-D-G. And watch the very end of the song, the chorus is just those two lines, starting with the D and then back to the G – or the fifth and back to the root if you do it in a different key.

Mess around with the chords and you’ll find a melody – try starting on the D with the first line of the verse and make your way down to the G. And the chorus is a gospel call-and-response – if you can start with a high G on the first “go down” and then hit the low one on the next “go down,” give that a try.

This blog sees this as more of a lowdown, chugging take on what Dylan did with Subterranean Homesick Blues, or the kind of shuffle Nick Lowe would do with Rockpile. If you’re going to play a solo, after the next-to-last chorus seems like the logical place. But like any other folk song, how you do it is really up to you

Slashing, Anthemic, Melodic Metal From Rising Steel

French band Rising Steel play ferociously melodic, shapeshifting mid-80s style European metal. The obvious influence is Iron Maiden. Like that foundational NWOBHM band, these guys typically take a symphonic approach beyond any kind of simple verse/chorus patterns or blues progressions. They like big crushing hooks, their guitar solos have fangs, and nobody in the band wastes notes. Their album Fight Them All is streaming at Spotify.

They open at a machinegunning pace with Mystic Voices, veering back and forth between Motorhead and Maiden, with what sounds like a recurrent Bloodrock reference: these guys obviously know their source material. Frontman Emmanuelson delivers the requisite Viking operatics over the two-guitar attack of Mat Heavy Jones and Tony Steel and the surprisingly lithe rhythm section of bassist Flo Dust and drummer Steel Zard.

The album’s title track has bleak, crunchy chromatic guitars over a catchy, relentlessly galloping pulse. Steel Hammer could be British oi punk legends the UK Subs with more menacing chords, at least until they take the song halfspeed, and then out with a classic Maiden-ish charge.

They slow things down for a little while with Blackheart, but don’t hold back on the doomy chromatics. The stampede continues with Savage and segues with a swirl into the icily macabre Gloomy World, a surreal mashup of Maiden, Sabbath and piledriver postrock.

Malefice has a straightforward vintage Metallica drive, while Metal Nation is the album’s thrashiest number, and also one of its angriest ones, a furious call for unity against repression.

It’s surprising how few bands have ever done a song called Pussy: count Rising Steel among the few and the proud. Turns out that they don’t even use the word in this unexpectedly lighthearted party anthem.

They go back to thrashy punkmetal with Led By Judas and wind up the album on more of a Metallica style note with the steady, rampaging Master Control. Darkly anthemic heavy music doesn’t get much more memorable than this in 2020.

Irresistibly Colorful Improvisations from Korean Trio Saaamkiiim

More today from fascinating new Korean label Mung Music, dedicated to taking some of that country’s strangest and most beguiling improvisational sounds to a global audience. One of their initial slate of releases is Ma-Chal (Korean for “friction”), the debut album by electroacoustic trio Saaamkiiim, streaming at Bandcamp.

There are four tracks: Pointy, Moist, Creepy, and the title cut. Pointy begins as an eerily keening series of electronic loops joined by jagged incisions from Yeji Kim’s haegum fiddle. Sun Ki Kim’s drums and small gongs range from suspenseful, to shamanic, to irrepressibly amusing. The improvisation builds to a series of very funny triangulated interludes – maybe that’s why it’s pointy.

Moist has Dey Kim’s stalactite drips and minimalist piano licks paired with an icy mist of cymbals and shifting sheets of sound from the haegum. The rhythm grows boomier and more insistent along with the fiddle: is this iceberg going to rip apart into a million pieces? Just the opposite, as it turns out.

How creepy is Creepy? Increasingly so, as monster-breath sonics push coy evocations of birdsong from the haegum out of the picture and the funereal gong grows more frantic. Gritty, straining tension and looming atmospherics pervade early part of the title soundscape, then it gets amusing. No spoilers.

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog Use Lockdown Time to Make One of the Year’s Best Albums

Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog’s new album What I Did on My Long Vacation – streaming at Bandcamp – is the rare album recorded in isolation during the lockdown that actually sounds like the band are all playing together. But that wasn’t how it was made. Guitarist Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith each took turns laying down their tracks in Ismaily’s studio since for one reason or another they couldn’t pull the trio together at the same time. Testament to their long camaraderie, they got not only this funny, cynical, deliciously textured album out of it; they’ll be releasing a full vinyl record (yessssssss!) with material from these sessions in 2021. They’re playing the album release show at 8 PM on Oct 23 on the roof of St. Ann’s Warehouse, Beatles style, the band playing down to the crowd on the street below.

The first track is We Crashed In Norway, a sketchy, vamping, sardonic quasi-disco theme that harks back to Ribot’s similarly wry Young Philadelphians cover band project. Beer is just plain awesome – the suspiciously snide skronk/punk/funk second number, that is, forget about the (presumably) fizzy stuff that too many of us have been abusing since March 16.

With Ismaily’s loopy bassline and Ribot’s jaggedly spare multitracks, Who Was That Masked Man reminds of  classic Metal Box-era Public Image Ltd. Dog Death Opus 27 is a lot shorter and just as loopy, with a sarcastic turnaround.

The most sarcastically savage track here is Hippies Are Not Nice Anymore, a pretty straight-up punk rock tune tracing the sordid trail of the boomers to the point where “corporate was the theme of the week” – imagine the Dead Kennedys with a careening Velvets jam at the end. To close the album, the trio channel the Dream Syndicate – Ribot playing both the Steve Wynn and Jason Victor roles – in the buzzy, psychedelic, atmospherically careening The Dead Have Come to Stay with Me.

Considering the horrific toll the lockdown has taken on bands all around the world, it’s heartwarming to these these downtown punk-jazz legends still at the top of their game, undeterred.